When Can You Shoot in Self-Defense?

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law changed the circumstances

Does a new state law give you permission to shoot a woman who may be an armed robber—or just an Avon lady—as she knocks on your door and peers through your window? Does it allow you to use dealy force against a panhandler who may approach you with a knife and demand your wallet—or who is only trying to wheedle a handout?

Some lawyers fear that those two scenarios, extreme as they seem, could fall under the reach of a new state law that removes people's obligation to retreat from dangerous situations before using force to protect themselves.

"When people become angry and strike out, this gives them a justification and defense they wouldn't have had before," says John DeVault, former president of the Florida Bar, a trial lawyer with Bedell, Dittmar, DeVault, Pillans & Coxe in Jacksonville. "You no longer have an obligation to retreat. You can stand your ground and blow someone away."

The "Stand Your Ground" law, which took effect Oct. 1, 2005, also limits police officers' powers to arrest and hold in custody people who claim they used violence in self-defense.

David Oscar Markus, vice president of the Miami chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says that under Florida law, a person is allowed to "stand his or her ground and meet force with force." It also presumes anyone who uses deadly force in self-defense acted reasonably and is usually immune from arrest and criminal prosecution. 

Markus says the "shoot first" law "is taking our whole justice system out of the process. Once you chip away at a jury's right to do its job, I get nervous, and I think most lawyers do."

For more information on this area of law, see our civil rights overview.

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